Unisys ICON (The 1980's Canadian Computer mentioned on the Bombcast a few weeks ago)

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#1 Posted by Black_Turtle (12 posts) -

Hi Everyone,

I was getting caught up on recent podcast episodes and heard the email at around 2:08:00 in episode 515, and did some digging on this old-ass piece of Canadian history.


Something neat that I wasn't aware of, was the OS for these computers was an early version of QNX, which was popularized as the OS for Blackberry phones as well as some embedded systems such as onboard car computers. The terminals had no local storage, and all connected to a central mainframe fileserver.

I remember using these computers in the early 90's (as I was born in 1987) and fondly remember a bunch of the games on the system. Some of them include:

Offshore Fishing - a fishing game where you navigate your boat to certain fishing spots, and use the trackball to raise/lower your fishing net to catch fish. There were many kinds of fish available to catch (the map tiles had different elements like depth/temperature) and different nets were better for certain types of fish. I'm not sure what triggered it, but every once and a while a shark would come through and break through your net. An old school yard rumour was that there was a way to catch the shark.

Math Ville - You start the game on foot, and travel to different buildings in the town. To progress in the game you had to solve basic math problems, most of them centered around figuring out change from purchases. As you got more points, you would get access to better modes of transportation (I recall skateboard, bike, car and helicopter)

Math Maze - The game is a D&D inspired maze game, where you 'fight' random enemy encounters by solving basic math problems (think simple addition/subtraction/division/multiplication). I recall that you would choose your character at the beginning (wizard, knight and thief IIRC).

There were also a variety of typing programs, one specifically I remember being hockey themed.

Something else I found in my search was that apparently the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford Ontario has a system up and running. I'm curious if anyone that lives nearby has been to this museum and seen the computer in action. I haven't been able to find many videos/images of the software running, would love to see it but I live about 10 hours away.


I'm curious as to how easy it would be to emulate one of these, since the architecture is x86 based and the OS is a unix-like system. Unfortunately I don't know anything about hardware emulation.

Does anyone else have fond memories of these beasts?

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#2 Posted by MarvinPontiac (142 posts) -

I do! We used them from grade 2-4. I've played all the ones you mentioned above except for Math Ville. Sadly the only game that seems even remotely playable right now is Crosscountry Canada. It's decent, but I'd love someone to dig up the whole catalogue some day.

Some games I extremely remember are New Kid in Town, Northwest Fur Trader and ChemistryLand. I have blurry memories of a school-themed game called Academy.

One of my all time fave games on the ICON was The Bartlett Saga. Was a multi-part history game following a family of refugees. The best one is probably Refugees in the Wilderness. Kind of like Canadian Oregon Trail but less of a journey and more vignettes/mini-games. Someone seems to have translated odd bits of it to the browser (boo flash) here: http://www.theloyalistbartletts.com

IPaint was a great drawing/animation program in that a 7-year-old can make fully-animated stories in 15 minutes. That's a feat.

LOGO was also an interesting thing. You would issue commands to a triangle called a "turtle" and it would walk out those commands and create shapes out of the path. Apparently a real programming language for a real robot called a turtle.

Anyway, I miss that old girl.

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#3 Edited by bmccann42 (414 posts) -

I remember those in elementary school, but it was always broken. I distinctly remember the giant black rubber trackball that was set into the keyboard.

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#4 Posted by HoboKnight (26 posts) -

Spent so much time with these back in elementary school. So fun fact, I work at blackberry who own QNX now and I've been asking around for a few years to see if I can find one of these or any remaining documentation so I could try my hand at writing an emulator of some sort. I've had no luck so far, but I'll keep trying. I'm not sure what the chances are realistically. There may be some remnant of these old systems that is part of modern QNX and can't be made public for security reasons or something. It sounds crazy, but you'd be surprised what sticks around. I believe that modern windows (or at least up to vista) still has bits of 95 in there somewhere. There's also the matter of software. I have no idea if QNX would have archives of the software for these things, or if they belonged to the schools and were not backed up.

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#5 Edited by HoboKnight (26 posts) -

@hoboknight: So I've spent some more time digging into this, and unfortunately it looks like QNX has lost/destroyed anything around the Icons. This was way back before modern source control etc, so if there was any source code still around it was just sitting on a hard drive or tape backup that's long gone. It doesn't seem like there's even any hardcopy of specs or anything kicking around, or any actual server or terminal units. So unless an old QNX/Unisys employee took some stuff with them when they left, or some teacher or schoolboard employee held onto anything it could be really hard to get an emulator going.

I'm in Waterloo and only an hours drive from the computer museum the OP mentioned. I might have to go check it out some time.

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#6 Posted by edgecase (1 posts) -
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There is a collector in Toronto with a working Lexicon (fileserver) and Icon1 & 2. I have made ROM dumps, disassembled the firmware and created a memory map. The MAME emulator has most of the chips already, except the trackball interface and ARCNET chip. He has been working for over a year getting access to the Ontario Archives, to copy documents and image floppy disks. So far, QNX 2, Turing, Pascal, and C have been recovered, no games yet that I know of. Also a university in Toronto has some material donated in their museum, which may be accessible at some point.